Content note: This post is about ableism and desexualization of adults with disabilities. It is highly likely to be triggering to some people who have experienced degrading desexualization, as well as to some people who have been sexually assaulted or otherwise had people violate their sexual boundaries.
A reader asked:
As an autistic person I often feel desexualised, and I don’t like it but I feel sorta uncomfortable stating it for some reason? How should I like, deal with this and enforce my sexuality without making people uncomfortable?
This gets really complicated.
Being desexualized is awful, and it’s also really hard to talk about without sounding like you feel entitled to sexual or romantic attention from other people. Especially when you’re talking to people who’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of intrusive sexual attention and who aren’t aware that desexualization also happens and is also a problem.
Another complication is that many adults really are asexual or aromantic. That’s an ok way to be, and it’s important to acknowledge that those people exist and aren’t broken. Objecting to desexualization does not mean objecting to asexual people.
People who desexualize adults with disabilities in these ways aren’t recognizing asexual adulthood; they’re denying disabled adulthood and expressing it in sexual terms. (And this denial of adulthood expressed in sexual terms also hurts asexual adults).
I think that desexualization is when people refuse to acknowledge or respect some basic things:
- That you’ve reached adulthood or you are a teenager
- That you’re as likely as anyone else your age to experience romantic and sexual attraction
- That if you are experiencing sexual and/or romantic attraction, it’s as significant and important as attraction anyone else experiences
- If you want to, it’s completely appropriate for you to act on your sexual and romantic feelings (either with yourself or consenting other people)
- You have the same right to physical, sexual, and emotional boundaries as anyone else
People who desexualize you might treat you inappropriately in group dynamics, eg:
- By assuming that you will never have a crush on anyone in your friend group
- By assuming that you don’t date for real and will always be available to go to couple’s events with someone who is caught without a partner at the last minute
- By saying things like “I hate men/women/whoever. You’re so lucky you don’t have to deal with dating them.“
- Or like “It’s so great to talk to you about this stuff. I’m so tired of how everyone else is making the group awkward with their dating drama.”
- Or venting to you about how hard it is for them to find a partner without considering that you might share this frustration, and that it’s probably harder for you than it is for them
- Or making jokes about how you’re their ~boyfriend~/~girlfriend~, ignoring the possibility that you might want to be someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend and that you might, in fact, be attracted to them.
People who desexualize you also sometimes don’t observe appropriate sexual boundaries, eg:
- Assuming that rules of modesty don’t apply to you
- Undressing in front of you (in a community in which it would normally be considered inappropriate for someone of their age and gender to undress in from of someone of your age and gender)
- Touching you in ways that are considered inappropriately intimate in your social circles for people who are not romantically or sexually involved
- Adopting suggestive poses or being inappropriately close (eg: by having their breasts or crotch way too close to your face)
- (The rules of acceptable nudity, physical contact, and closeness are different in different cultures, and that’s fine. What’s not fine is having established rules of modesty/boundaries but ignoring them when interacting with disabled people)
It’s ok to be angry about this kind of thing, and it’s ok to insist that people knock it off and treat you with more respect. It’s ok to expect people to respect your maturity, your romantic and sexual capacity, and your physical and emotional boundaries.
For instance, it’s ok to say “I’m a grown man; you shouldn’t be changing in front of me,” or “I’m not your girlfriend; stop touching me like that,” or “I don’t want to go to that event with you unless it’s a real date,” or “I don’t like it when you make jokes about dating me,” or “I get crushes too you know.” This will probably make some people uncomfortable; and that’s ok. You don’t have to do all of the emotional labor of making social interactions comfortable; it’s ok to have boundaries even when other people don’t like them. It’s also ok to insist that people acknowledge and respect your age even if they’d rather see you as a child.
It’s ok to be angry about people treating you badly in areas related to sexuality, and it’s ok to insist that they knock it off. It’s ok to be upset when you’re single and don’t want to be, and it’s ok to be upset about the role that ableism is playing in making it hard to find someone.
It’s also important to be careful that this doesn’t turn into anger at people for having sexual boundaries of their own. It can easy for some people to become confused about this when start realizing that it’s ok to have sexual feelings, and not ok that others treat you as though your disability means your sexuality doesn’t count. If you’ve been treated as outside of legitimate sexuality for your whole life, you likely have missed opportunities to learn about consent and appropriate sexual and romantic interactions. That’s not your fault; it is your responsibility to address. Being the object of discrimination does not give you a free pass to violate other people’s boundaries, even if you’re not doing it on purpose.
It’s important to keep in mind that no one is obligated to date you, sleep with you, allow you to touch them, consider dating you, justify their lack of interest in dating you, or anything else like that. (And that it’s not ok to hit on people if you’re in a position of power over them).
You’re human, so it’s likely that you’re having some less-than-ideal feelings about this stuff some of the time. You might feel jealous, or upset, or even angry at people who haven’t really done anything wrong. (Because they’re dating visibly and you’re lonely, or because you asked them out and they said no, or other things like that which can hurt to see but aren’t their fault.) It’s ok if you’re feeling that way; you don’t have to have superhuman control of your feelings to treat people well. What’s important is that you don’t feed it, and that you don’t act on it.
In particular, it’s important not to cultivate offense when people you’re interested in dating aren’t interested in you. That leads nowhere good. (eg: I got an ask about how to stand up to a person who was using disability as an excuse to grope people a while back.)
Rejection sucks, and it sucks more when you’re already really lonely, and it sucks even more when you know that ableism is probably a major factor in why some people you’re attracted to aren’t interested. It can be really tempting when things are that hard to take offense. It’s important to stay aware that people who reject you aren’t wronging you, and to find constructive ways to deal with it that don’t involve contempt for the people you’re attracted to. (In particular, stay away from pick up artist communities. Adopting that worldview makes it much harder to learn about good consent and have respectful relationships).
It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s ok for you to be sexual and to express interest in dating people. (Even if you encounter people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of disabled people having and acting on sexual and romantic feelings. Those people are wrong.) Your sexuality is not ever the problem. (It’s possible sometimes that things you’re doing might be a problem, but having a sexuality is never a problem in itself.)
In particular – if you ask someone out or hit on them and they say no, that doesn’t mean that you did something wrong. It just means that they aren’t interested. Asking people who turn out not to be interested is ok; asking is how you find out. You don’t have to be a mindreader in order for it to be ok to ask someone out.
All of this can be really, really hard to navigate. I hope some of this helped.
Short version: Disabled adults and teenagers are often treated like children. People often express this in sexualized terms by assuming that disabled adults are all incapable of legitimate sexual expression. It’s awful to be on the receiving end of that. It’s also hard to talk about or object to effectively. Scroll up for more thoughts on how to navigate this.